Honor the real King

OPINION: White America loves to pay tribute to a fictionalized version of Martin Luther King Jr., one who wanted a colorblind society and fewer discussions about race.

In this 1960 file photo, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. speaks in Atlanta. The estate of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. has reached an agreement with HarperCollins Publishers for rights to his archive. (AP Photo, File)

I tried to have a nice King holiday, I really did. I tried to not let whitey mess with my holiday because it’s a very special day to me. But once again, when it came to the King holiday, white people were the fly in my ointment, the raisins in my potato salad, the off-beat dancer at the club. I mean, when I see notes from people and corporations saying they celebrate and honor King’s legacy even though they do nothing with the rest of their lives that celebrates or honors King’s legacy, it makes me angry. When I see people say they “celebrate” King when they are actively working against King’s ideas, it makes my blood boil.

I think part of the problem is that many white people worship a fictional King. This is part of why we need critical race theory or some sort of honest teaching of history that involves Black folks, but that’s another conversation. Fictional King said this: “I have a dream that little Black and white children can hold hands and sit together in a color-blind world that only judges people by the content of their character and not the color of their skin” or something like that. 

But to white America, this is the only thing Fictional King ever said, and what Fictional King symbolizes is we should be colorblind and stop talking about race. This is the King that Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema and Kentucky Sens. Rand Paul and Mitch McConnell praised when they sent out their platitudinous tweets. They weren’t talking about Real King. Real King is far too rough for them.

Real King marched in favor of voting rights. If you’re working against voting rights now, the way Republicans are—I mean, if you’re trying to enact voter ID, shorten the time when people are allowed to vote, close polling places or any of the other tactics Republicans are employing to decrease the number of Black people who vote—then you are working against King’s legacy so don’t say you honor it.

Real King opposed the Vietnam War in part because he said our military budget took funds that should be used for anti-poverty programs. He said, “A nation that spends more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” This critique of America rings true today—even as we are pulling out of wars, we still spend too much to have the world’s most powerful army while also saying we don’t have enough to pay for programs that will take care of the neediest at home. If you’re fighting to increase our bloated and ginormous military budget while arguing that we cannot afford programs that will alleviate poverty, you are working against King’s legacy. Don’t say you honor it.

Real King wanted economic justice for the poor, and to him, a critical part of that was a guaranteed income. That’s socialism. You can’t fight against a universal basic income or use socialism as a dirty word and also say you celebrate King’s legacy. He was anti-capitalist, he was pro-union, he was all about helping the poor. If your work is about aiding the rich in your fight to join them, then which King are you honoring?

In this Aug. 9, 1965, file photo, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, chats with his wife, Coretta, left, and civil rights champion Constance Baker Motley before the start of an S.C.L.C. banquet in Birmingham, Ala. (AP Photo/File)

Real King wanted reparations for the descendants of slaves. In Why We Can’t Wait, he wrote that the unpaid wages of slavery should be given to modern Black people. “The ancient common law,” he wrote, “has always provided a remedy for the appropriation of the labor of one human being by another. This law should be made to apply for American Negroes. The payment should be in the form of a massive program by the government of special, compensatory measures which could be regarded as a settlement in accordance with the accepted practice of common law.” If you’re fighting against reparations, if you think the idea is absurd or unworkable and not morally necessary, then no, you don’t honor King’s legacy.

You don’t have to agree with everything King said to honor him, but if the only thing King symbolizes to you and the only thing you agree with him on is that our society should be colorblind—which is not what he believed—then you aren’t really celebrating the Real King. If you focus only on the “content of our character” stuff then what you want is wimpy equality that’s about loving each other, period, not an honest equality that actually addresses the problems of Black America. Black people don’t need white people’s love. We need political power and economic justice. We need the racial wealth gap closed. We need reparations. That’s what King was about. Let’s honor that.

Touré, theGrio.com

Touré is the host of the podcast “Toure Show” and the podcast docuseries “Who Was Prince?” He is also the author of seven books.

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